A dozen elementary students from South Seattle ran math relays in front of an elementary school on a breezy morning in July.
They raced one by one to a desk where they wrote down answers to questions about multiplication before sprinting to their teammate to give them a high-five. The nonprofit School Connect WA runs a summer program for these students to help them regain math and literacy skills that they lost due to the pandemic. The program includes 25 students, all of whom are between one and three grades behind.
A boy of 11 years old couldn’t subtract two digits. He’s now caught up thanks to the program, and his mother who helped him every night. He says that math is difficult, but he enjoys it.
Other children haven’t done so well.
Schools across the country are scrambling as the results of post-pandemic tests reveal how far behind students’ math skills actually are. According to education analysts, the average math knowledge of students is half a year behind what it should be.
The math declines are more striking than the reading declines. Virtual learning, say experts, complicates math instruction. Teachers find it difficult to guide their students on a screen and spot weak problem-solving abilities. Plus, parents are more likely to have their children read at home rather than practice math.
Math skills dropped across the board. Racial and socioeconomic disparities in math performance were exacerbated. Students aren’t recovering as quickly as educators had hoped. This has heightened concerns about their futures in high school, and the availability of science, technology, and medical careers.
The Education Reporting Collaborative is a coalition of 8 newsrooms that documents the math crisis in schools and highlights progress. The Education Reporting Collaborative is made up of AL.com and The Associated Press. It also includes The Christian Science Monitor and The Dallas Morning News.
Since 1990, students have made incremental progress in national math tests. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (also known as “Nation’s Report Card”), which collects data on fourth and eighth grade math, has revealed that scores have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years.
Andrew Ho, professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, said: “It’s the loss of a generation of progress.”
Jennifer Matthews, a teacher at Moultrie Middle School, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina has witnessed the pandemic fallout among her eighth-grade classes. Her students are not interested in her pre-algebra or Algebra I classes.
They don’t let themselves process the material. She said that they don’t think about the fact that it might take them a whole day to learn or understand something.
Recently, students are showing up to her class with misconceptions about math concepts. She said that many students still struggle with basic fractions.
Some schools added tutors to their staff or tried out new curriculums in order to help students recover. This money is slated to expire in September 2024, before many students have caught up.
Jefferson County Schools, Birmingham, Alabama saw the math abilities of students take a dive from 2019 to 2020. The district, leveraging pandemic assistance, placed math coaches at all of its middle schools.
Coaches help teachers to learn better and more innovative ways of teaching students. According to federal data, about 1 in 5 US public schools have a math teacher. According to state testing, math scores are starting to rise again in most Jefferson County middle schools.
Ebonie lamb, a special education teacher in Pittsburgh, whose school system serves 53% African Americans, said that it is “emotionally exhausting to see the disparities between student groups.” She believes that these gaps in academic performance can be narrowed by using culturally relevant lesson plans and teaching each student according to their skill level.
Lamb said that she asks her students to “walk a Mile in My Shoes” projects, in which they describe themselves and design shoes. This is a great way to learn more about each student. These connections will ultimately help in the classroom. She and her co-teachers taught math last year in small groups, which allowed students to learn at their own pace.
She said that all students cannot be following the same scripted curriculum or working on the same problems.
The debate about how math should taught is adding to the difficulty of catching up with kids. Experts say that over the years the pendulum has swung from procedural learning to conceptual understanding.
“Math is a class that most people dislike. Kevin Dykema is the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. When people begin to grasp the concepts, especially in math but also in other subjects, they develop a greater appreciation.
Sarah Powell, professor at University of Texas at Austin and expert in math education, says that teaching math shouldn’t be a binary choice. She said that a shift in conceptual direction too far could alienate students who don’t have the fundamental skills.
She said, “We have to teach and it is not as sexy or interesting.”
Aggie Gambino, a parent from Spring, Texas, has frequently searched YouTube for math videos. Giada is one of Aggie Gambino’s twin daughters aged 10 who has dyslexia. She also struggles with math problems, particularly word problems. Gambino said that helping her daughter was difficult, as the instructional methods differed from how she had been taught.
She would like to receive information from her daughter’s teacher about how the students are taught.
She said that the more parents understood how their children were being taught, the better they could be involved in their learning.
The impact of the pandemic is evident even at a nationally recognized Magnet School. The incoming ninth-graders at the Townview School of Science and Engineering, Dallas, had to learn the meaning of terms like “term” and “coefficient” in Lance Barasch’s summer camp class.
He said, “Then go back to the real lesson you are trying to teach.”
Barasch was not surprised to find that teens’ skills had been compromised after their middle school years.
By taking a step forward, the students hope to be able to continue on.